Interview with “Tiong Bahru Social Club” Director TAN Bee Thiam (陈美添)[OAFF 2021]

“Tiong Bahru Social Club,” the first feauture film directed by Singaporean TAN Bee Thiam (陈美添), received its Japan premiere screening at the 16th Osaka Asian Film Festival(OAFF 2021). With its minimal set and vibrant colors, TAN Bee Thiam has created a unique worldview of the Tiong Bahru Social Club, a community that makes people happy through data management. The Pearl Bank Apartments, which was called one of Singapore's most famous buildings but was demolished in 2020 for redevelopment, appeared as the residence of the main character, Ah Bee and his mother, and it was used to show that there is a problem of awareness of the community. There is. At first glance, it's pop, but it's a really interesting work with philosophical questions.

We conducted an email interview with TAN Bee Thiam, the director of “Tiong Bahru Social Club”.

It was interesting to see the difference of community living between in Tiong Bahru Social Club and in Pearl Bank Apartment. Did you have the specific intention of depicting these communities and their living? Did you try to give contrast to the communities in Tiong Bahru and Pearl Bank? Please let me know if there is any problem in local communities widely concerned in Singapore? What is the ideal community for you?

TAN Bee Thiam:The film is a shot-reverse-shot between the two housing developments of Tiong Bahru and Pearl Bank, which are a stone’s throw from each other. Built in the 1930s with an Art Deco architectural style, Tiong Bahru is one of Singapore’s oldest public housing developments and due to its conservation. Built in 1976 and demolished in 2020, the Pearl Bank apartments was a private development and featured a unique Brutalist design. Both spaces reflect forward-looking visions of communal living, making them the perfect settings for our retro-futuristic movie. Because land is scarce in city-state Singapore, the mentality is that we have to demolish to build new things. As a filmmaker, I am interested in what people remember and what we forget

The art design and music in the film were “retro” but futuristic at the same time. Why did you make them so? What did you bear in mind when you make them?

TAN Bee Thiam:I am influenced by the profound wisdom of Lao Tzu’s Tao Te Ching. In the universe of Tiong Bahru Social Club, there is a coexistence of the yin and the yang. It is about finding the perfect balance of two polar opposite elements. The retro-futuristic visuals reflect the past imagining the future, not in a linear path of time but stacked on top of another where time has stopped, like a timeless augmented reality, with the real and the perceived in harmony. In the film, there are no cars, no handphones and no computers – so you can’t pin point which era the film is set.

What did you bear in mind when you create the characters, especially Ms. Wee? And we can many cats freely strolling in the film. What do you want the audience aware of through Ms. Wee and the cats?

TAN Bee Thiam:In the film, Ms. Wee represents the senior citizens in a fast-aging neighbourhood. Unlike the young happiness agents who wear uniforms, she wears what she likes and does not conform to society. She might be single and alone but she’s happy without going through the happiness workshops. She has a caustic tongue but she’s kind - she looks after the stray cats in the neighbourhood; she advises happiness agents to leave and do something more meaningful. With Ms. Wee, I want to break the norm of what a happy person look like.

The film appears to ask what makes us happy, but it is really asking what makes us human. The cat is based on the true story of Bob the Cat, a beloved neighbourhood cat, who would go on random house visits in Tiong Bahru. In 2011, Bob met with a car accident and in no time, the residents banded together to raise funds for his medical bills. The residents have since taken turns to care for Bob and whenever Bob needed medical help again, they would come together to support him. Today, Bob is still wandering the Tiong Bahru alleys and getting into fights with other cats. When I heard this story, I thought, if we can care for everyone like how the Tiong Bahru residents did for Bob, we would be in such a happy place. This would be an ideal community to me.

Ah Bee works at the complaint consultation counter in the latter part of the film, and the people in Tiong Bahru Social Club rush to talk to Ah Bee. So many complaints in Happiness. May I know how did you come up with adding this scene in the film? What do you expect the audience to be aware of?

TAN Bee Thiam:Although we have a script, most of the lines in the complaint centre were re-written on the spot with the non-professionals on set. I would chat with the actors and ask them what they would like to complain. I would select what I found interesting, refined it for clarity and we would go for a take. The complaints reflected the usual quirks of Singaporeans, what you would find in forum section of newspapers. In the film, the complaint centre was located at the basement of the back of the technicolour housing estate. Beneath the glittering façade, this was where the feelings of the residents were revealed. These scenes mirror how Singapore elected members of parliament would have weekly meet-the-people sessions to address the concerns of their constituents.

Ah Bee goes back to his mother while we thought he would be independent after he came out of Tiong Bahru Social Club. And his family’s apartment is part of  Pearl Bank Social Club. May I know how you came up with this last scene? Was the last scene decided from the very start of this film?

TAN Bee Thiam:The film is structured into two halves. It opens with a question – To Be or Not to Be(e) and ends with the song, Choices by Charlie Lim. The first half is about filling the glass full and the second half is about emptying it. When the main character submits himself to the Taoist Philosophy of Non-action (wu wei), things come full circle. You will then notice that the logo of the Tiong Bahru Social Club is actually the top view of the Pearl Bank building. A fun fact: we were paying homage to Ozu with our first scene (at the exterior of the factory) and the last scene (mum and son sit together watching television, with a red kettle in the foreground).

Orked(one of the happiness agents) comes from the trilogy of Director Yasmin Ahmad. Would you let me know any  episodes between you and Director Yasmin Ahmad?

TAN Bee Thiam:I know the late Yasmin Ahmad well and she would meet me whenever she’s in Singapore to shoot a TVC (television commercial) for the Singapore government. She would invite me to visit her set and I did so on Talentime. Like what Yasmin did in her works, I want to celebrate the multiracial, multicultural and multilingual nature of Singapore. In fact, the name Tiong Bahru is a reflection of this - ‘Tiong’ in Hokkien means cemetery and ‘Bahru’ means new in Malay. I would also like to not just reflect social reality but to offer a humanist glimpse to the future that we can look forward to.

by Yumi Eguchi

Supported by Jason MAHER

The 16th Osaka Asian Film Festival official interview with  “Tiong Bahru Social Club” Director TAN Bee Thiam (陈美添)is below.

“Tiong Bahru Social Club”

2020|Singapore|88min|Language: English, Mandarin, Hokkien, Cantonese, Teochew, Malay, Tami

Director: TAN Bee Thiam (陈美添)

Cast:Thomas PANG (彭祖耀)、GOH Guat Kian (吴悦娟)、Jalyn HAN (韓雪卿)、Noorlinah MOHAMED、Jo TAN (陈思敏)

(c)Tiger Tiger Pictures, Bert Pictures, 13 Little Pictures